It all started when Sr. Noeleen insisted I end my agonized-over, emo high school graduation speech with “Mispah.” Mis-what? She was smiling, her thin, stern face alight with triumph. I sulked, bristling without even knowing what the stupid Hebrew word meant.
“May the Lord be between you and me until we meet again,” she said, that heavy Irish brogue lilting. And of course it was the perfect ending for a Catholic, tight-knit, all-girls commencement—but I hated it, because it was not mine. When I dutifully said the word, I lingered a bit on the zzz sound and let the pah pop the mic, my subtle and cowardly version of rebellion.
The same impulse has kept me safe from plagiarism; I would rather my words be mine, however inferior or awkwardly cobbled. As a kid, when I learned a cool new word, my grandmother urged me to use it in a few sentences that very day: “Make it your own.”
We love to personalize. We have our initials embroidered on towels that will fade and thin in a year. The idea of clothing custom-tailored to our bodies—unaffordably, by a human, or now, with computerized manufacturing—thrills us. So why not make our lives our own?
I forget who said it, but the words stuck: “There is more than one way to live a beautiful life.” Back in the Mispah days, my dream was to live in Connecticut and take the train in to New York to work for a publishing house. Sometimes I feel wistful, thinking of that East Coast life . . . and then I burst out laughing. Because now I live in Waterloo and drive across the river to write essays at a university, and really, it is just a variation on the theme.
Too gutless to become a foreign correspondent, I learned to study familiar surroundings as one would a new country. Rather than marry an architect who could design our home, I married a historian who explains the world we live in. (As for Andrew, his youth’s dream was to be the dictator of Paraguay; I cannot spin that one.)
Once we let the particulars go and look instead for the essence of what we would deem a beautiful life, it becomes far easier to carve one. But first we have to stop trying to live other people’s version. A friend of mine became a nurse because her sisters were nurses. Another went into law because he was expected to join the family firm. I know people who married because it seemed time, who had kids because that was what one did, who stayed in a religion they did not fully believe because it seemed a good and solid way to live. Tocqueville saw the problem from the start: We Americans are all talk, desperate for individual freedom yet unwilling to grant real freedom to ourselves or anyone else.
Part of the problem, at least in its contemporary form, is the hypnotic seduction of consumerism. A friend raves about some jazzy new kitchen appliance or ultra-comfortable sweatshirt, and suddenly it seems imperative that I have one too. We are taught to want, trained to imagine each new shiny object into our possession. Ideologically, we are told we must find our tribe and wear its colors. Forced to live in tight boxes, we insist on putting others in tight boxes, too. All beliefs and values must fit into a compartment: Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, feminist or traditionalist, religious or irreligious. Once religious, we must adhere to all the dogma of a particular sect. When I did, I agreed that what was scathingly called “Chinese takeout menu Catholicism” (pick a few tenets from column A and a few from column B) was a travesty. Now I just think it honest.
More of us are refusing to have our beliefs templated. Yet in the political sphere, pity the politician who says anything that contradicts the party line. If they did speak more honestly, voicing opinions that differed from the official party platform, we could begin to see gray areas, and perhaps we would not wind up so polarized. But that is not how the money flows. Political power derives from glomming together and marching in lockstep.
Some of my aversion to conformity is temperamental; I shied away from cliques and sororities, preferring the GDI (goddamned independent) label, and I like indie movies, indie music, voting as an independent. But I hunger to be part of a group, too, wistful for teamwork and camaraderie and the kind of energy that only builds when people congregate. That should not be a contradiction. Being human means to be at once separate, unique, and part of a group. Yet we have societies that insist on conformity; libertarians and anarchists who refuse even sensible safety rules. Members of the former must conform to their dogma; members of the latter must conform to an anti-dogma that is just as fierce. Individualist or collectivist? Choose.
We did not choose, though. Instead, we created a weird hybrid of conformist individualism that contradicts itself at every turn. And this is why we cannot sort out what our “rights” are.
Is it our insistence on conformity that has brought us to our current discord, or our insistence on individualism? The best families honor, cherish, and leave room for individual eccentricities, even as they continue the mutual support and rituals that shore up familial belonging. The most creative companies make space for a hodgepodge of talents and ideas; so do the strongest governments. Yet we live at such extremes, now, that I am wary of compromise and inclusion as others would define it. Let the anti-vaxxers continue in what I see as delusion? Let those who want to return to an imaginary glory and a White-ruled past dictate policy?
Was it the rigidity on both sides that pushed us to these extremes, though? Conservatives bristling at the labels liberals attached to them, liberals chafing at the conservative refusal to bend. New groups emerging and, impatient, pushing policy even farther left or right.
We need federal protections, that much is clear. Civil rights cannot be tampered with town by town. But do we also need new language? A tempest is brewing at Saint Louis University: Conservative Republicans are fighting with transgender activists, challenging their identity by asking the old “What is a woman?” question and insisting that the possession of a uterus seals the category. Would this battle (and so many similar battles) have needed fighting if our language already had many words, calmly accepted, for different states of being? One word for anatomy at birth, another for chosen identity, another for sexual orientation . . . Impose those words now, and people see it as an attempt to change what they learned was reality. But what if nobody had ever been forced into an either-or label? What if we had a special word for what conservative religious folk celebrate as holy matrimony—call them “sacred-wed” or something—and it was distinct from the secular marriage the courts honored? What if, instead of spending decades fighting bitterly over when cells become a fetus and when a fetus becomes a baby and whether abortion is murder, we had language that acknowledged potential human life and the occasional need to stop it from developing?
We fumble with awkward phrasings for what we are told are in-between or outside-the-norm states of being. Slowly it becomes obvious that there are more people “in between” and “outside the norm” than anyone realized, and the either-or means very little. People fight to have the same respect and therefore the same word. But if we had a richer vocabulary from the start, with no hierarchy of rightness attached to any of the words, we might have been able to honor difference without feeling threatened and erecting fortresses around “our” words.
Lately, I have been researching polyamory, so I had fun grilling all our friends. I assumed that casting aside monogamy would cause more upset than any of the previous social battles. A monogamous marriage is supposed to be bedrock, the normative way to become the right kind of adult. But while incredibly interested in the subject, a bit appalled, and dubious about their own ability to partake, our friends were unanimously tolerant of other people’s right to try. They would still choose monogamy, they said, admitting that any other option sounded exhausting. But so what if they chose monogamy as a preference, not a mandate? The meaning of that choice would only deepen.
There is more than one way to exist, to identify, to couple, to live. When alternatives emerge, we are quick to see them as threats—yet they free us all.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.